Gender and the Trinity: From Proxy War to Civil War

An explainer: the latest complementarian debate isn't over women’s subordination—but Christ's.
Gender and the Trinity: From Proxy War to Civil War
Image: Pieter de Grebber (c.1600-1653), "God Inviting Christ to Sit on the Throne at His Right Hand "

Last week, a group of evangelical theologians who normally agree on many controversial issues began a heated debate, prompting claims that scholars are getting God’s nature so wrong that they should quit their jobs.

The topic: the Trinity. The group: Reformed complementarians, i.e. Christian thinkers who affirm a broadly Calvinist view of theology and are also committed to the view that men and women have different but complementary roles and responsibilities in marriage, family life, and religious leadership.

Debates about the Trinity and how to understand it are not exactly new in the history of Christian theology. But in recent years, such disagreements among evangelicals have usually been divided along the lines of other hot-button theological issues—namely gender roles in the church. So what makes this latest discussion significant—beyond the increasingly fiery rhetoric on blogs and Twitter—is the surprise of seeing theologians who agree on so much (including gender roles) breaking ranks with each other around such a core component of Christian belief.

What’s more, the opposing sides are calling into question each other’s commitment to historic Christianity. Accusations of “constructing a new deity” and “reinventing the doctrine of God,” are flying fast and thick, along with calls to “exclude such people from holding office in the church of God.” Likewise, protests that such accusations “do not represent our view fairly” and “suggest that Scripture itself is outside the bounds of orthodox Christianity” in turn call into question the critics’ commitment to gospel-centered theology.

Those are big accusations.

So, why are Christian teachers and leaders, who normally have so much in common, suddenly in such sharp disagreement? Here’s a brief explanation of what’s going on and why it matters.

What happened?

On June 3, the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals (ACE) published the first half of a guest post by Liam Goligher, senior minister of Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia, on its blog, Mortification of Spin.

In his two-part blog post, Goligher strongly critiqued well-known theologians Bruce Ware (Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) and Wayne Grudem (Phoenix Seminary) for presenting a “novel view of God; a different God than that affirmed by the church through the ages and taught in Scripture.”

Goligher claimed that Ware, Grudem, and other complementarians have—in order to support their view of biblical gender roles—adopted a theology that makes God the Son eternally subordinate to God the Father, effectively dividing the Trinity.

According to Goligher, Ware and Grudem’s theology goes “beyond orthodoxy.”

According to Goligher, Ware and Grudem’s theology goes “beyond orthodoxy.” He adds that it “verge[s] on idolatry,” suggesting that holding their view “should certainly exclude such people from holding office in the church of God.”

Directly following those initial posts, Carl Trueman, a theologian at Westminster Theological Seminary who also blogs for ACE, added his support to Goligher’s accusations.

Ware and Grudem both responded to Goligher and Trueman, while numerous theologians and scholars have come out in support of one side or the other (notably the Patristics scholars Lewis Ayres and Michel Barnes have come out against Ware and Grudem’s views).

What are the key issues?

Basically, the debate boils down to three interrelated issues: a particular understanding of the relationship between God the Father and God the Son in the Trinity; whether that relationship reflects the historic creeds of Christianity; and whether that relationship has any bearing on human relationships, specifically regarding gender roles.

How do the Son and the Father relate in the Trinity?

Since the Council of Nicaea in A.D. 325 (with revisions in A.D. 381), the church has affirmed that “we believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father.”

This description, with its seemingly redundant wording, was crafted to protect against a variety of heresies (such as Arianism) that all are some form of subordinationism.

Subordinationism is a heretical view that claims that Jesus the Son is subordinate in nature to God the Father, while still being in some way divine. This means that the Son, while still being God, does not share the same level of Godness that the Father has.

Against this, church fathers like Athanasius and the Cappadocian Fathers argued that the Son is not a lesser being, or of lesser stature than the Father. Rather, they argued that “the Son is co-essential with the Father … while the Holy Spirit [is] proper to and inseparable from the essence of the Father and the Son” (Athanasius, “Synodal Letter to the People of Antioch”).

Athanasius stressed that it is important for our salvation that the Son has the same being as the Father because, in order for Jesus’ sacrificial death to have its saving power, he has to be fully and completely God in order to defeat death and cancel out sin. He wrote: “the death of all was consummated in the Lord’s body, yet, because the Word was in it, death and corruption were in the same act utterly abolished” (Athanasius, On the Incarnation, 4.20).

Do Ware and Grudem affirm this understanding?

Yes. Ware states clearly that he and Grudem “stand fully with the early ecumenical councils in embracing all that they say about the eternal deity of the Son and the full unity and co-eternality of the one God who is three.”

However, they claim that this is not the whole story, and that Scripture itself demands more of an explanation.

Ware states clearly that he and Grudem “stand fully with the early ecumenical councils.”

On the basis of passages such as Hebrews 1:1–2, John 5:19, and John 8:28, Ware and Grudem argue that, even though there is no difference in nature between the Father and the Son, there is a difference between their roles in the Trinity.

They reason that Jesus, in his earthly ministry, submitted himself to the will of his Father in heaven, and since Jesus is the fullness of God dwelling in human form (John 14:9), then this submission seen in Jesus must be true in the context of the Trinity eternally.

Scripture is clear that the Son Incarnate became subordinate to the Father; what Ware and Grudem are claiming is that this means that the Son is always subordinate to the Father—before, during, and after the Incarnation.

They describe this as an eternal functional subordination (this is often abbreviated in theological debates as EFS), and claim it “is consistent with the pro-Nicene heritage” because the Son still shares the fullness of the nature of God, and “it is also demanded by Scripture.” The Son is only subordinate to the Father in his role; he willingly submits to the Father’s will.

If Ware and Grudem affirm the Nicene Creed, then what is the problem?

According to critics of the EFS view—such as Fred Sanders, Kevin Giles, and Steven Holmes—the problem is that EFS doesn’t actually preserve the unity of the Trinity.

These critics, now joined by Goligher and Trueman, claim that in order for the Son to eternally submit to the Father, that would mean that the Son has a different will than the Father—which means that the Trinity is no longer unified. So, instead of one God, this creates three Gods with different wills, who all make those wills agree by way of subordination.

If this is true, then it would go against the spirit of the Nicene Creed and 1,600 years of Christian tradition.

If this is true, claim these critics, then it would go against the spirit of the Nicene Creed and 1,600 years of Christian tradition, by allowing subordinationism back into the Trinity.

Additionally, they claim it would also go against Scripture, because it is hard to square verses such as John 10:30, John 14:9, and Hebrews 1:3 with this view. In these verses, Jesus directly identifies himself with God without any suggestion of a difference of status or authority (“I and the Father are one”).

For critics of EFS, this seems to leave little room for any sort of eternal subordination, functional or otherwise.

So, how do gender roles factor into all of this?

Goligher and Trueman argued that Ware and Grudem are only taking the EFS view because they want to argue (on the basis of 1 Corinthians 11:3) that the relationship of subordination between the Father and the Son is the model for how women should be subordinate to men in human relationships, especially in marriage and in the church.

This view of hierarchical gender roles is called complementarianism, which is usually contrasted against egalitarianism, which argues that women and men are fundamentally equal and there should be no difference or hierarchy in gender roles.

Even though Goligher and Trueman are both complementarians like Ware and Grudem, they think that Ware and Grudem are unnecessarily introducing a new understanding of the Trinity to support their complementarian position. Trueman writes:

“…it is sad that the desire to maintain a biblical view of complementarity has come to be synonymous with advocating…this submission-driven teaching on the Trinity. In the long run such a tight pairing of complementarianism with this theology can only do one of two things. It will either turn complementarian evangelicals into Arians or tritheists; or it will cause orthodox believers to abandon complementarianism.”

In response, Ware and Grudem both deny that their view of the Trinity is dictated by anything other than adherence to Scripture. Here is Ware:

“…none of this glorious Trinitarian theology is being devised for the purpose of supporting a social agenda of human relations of equality and complementarity. I do believe there is intended correspondence, indeed. But that is a far cry from saying that we are "reformulating" the doctrine of the Trinity to serve our social purposes. God forbid! Let God be God, regardless of what implications may or may not follow! And may our sole aim be to know the true God through his self-revelation in Scripture…”

So why does all of this matter?

First off, the debate has boiled over from a fairly narrow disagreement between complementarians to a larger discussion about the Trinity. All of this chatter indicates that many theologians are once again thinking—and thinking hard—about how we talk about God and about how we should not talk about God.

Both sides of the debate seem to be coming to an informal consensus that, regardless of one’s view, using the language of subordination when it comes to the Trinity is at best not helpful, and at worst not orthodox. (Ware prefers not to use the common EFS terminology, but instead prefers “eternal relational authority-submission” [ERAS] precisely because of the problems with using the term subordination. But both he and Grudem remain adamant that an eternal hierarchy exists between Father and Son, regardless of the words used to describe it.)

Second, debates of this kind (both in terms of subject and ferocity) have a longstanding tradition within Christian history. It is precisely through debates such as these that Christians have historically clarified and improved their doctrine. And the nature of the individuals involved has brought new attention to a problem that has been simmering for quite some time among evangelical theologians.

Like wildfires, debates like this one are important and necessary in order to clear away confusion and allow for new spiritual growth.

Like wildfires are to forests, debates like this one are important and necessary for the life and faith of the church, in order to clear away confusion and allow for new spiritual growth. The Nicene Creed, one of the seminal doctrinal statements of the Christian faith, is the product of just such a contest in the fourth century.

Is this current debate going to produce the next Nicene Creed? No, not by a long shot. But it shows that theology is alive and well and worth continuing to think about and work on to help us all understand our faith a little better.

Finally, despite the intensity of the debate and the gravity of the accusations, the tone thus far has been fairly professional and respectful.

The disagreements are certainly sharp; accusations of abandoning historic Christian creeds and calling for the resignation of certain individuals are quite serious indeed. However, up to this point, the argument has stayed within the realm of doctrine for the most part, and has not strayed into the sorts of personal attacks and sniping that we have come to expect from public discourse these days.

In a social media–driven age when most arguments produce more heat than light, the way this one has been carried out could be seen as an encouraging sign.

[UPDATE] A number of our readers have written in and rightly identified a lack of female voices in our coverage. There is an important piece by Wendy Alsup and Hannah Anderson, The Eternal Subordination of the Son (and Women), up on Alsup’s blog Practical Theology for Women. Aimee Byrd, who also blogs at Mortification of Spin, wrote a response to Owen Strachan’s defense of eternal subordination. Strachan is President and Editor-in-chief of the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, and Byrd raised concerns about his remarks and called for clarification from CBMW.

Most of the original postings from the early stages of the debate can be found over at Mortification of Spin. For additional voices, Michael Bird and Scot McKnight (both critics of Ware and Grudem) have been aggregating the discussion as well.

For a more thorough overview of the theological issues at play, take a look at this blog post by CT contributor Andrew Wilson, and also this one by Fred Sanders.

Thomas McCall and Keith E. Yandell engaged Ware and Grudem on some of these very same issues in a debate at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in 2008.

Caleb Lindgren is CT associate editor of theology.

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Gender and the Trinity: From Proxy War to Civil War